I have often heard this hadith that the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said that a mountain can move from its place but a man cannot change his habits. Is this really a hadith and is it authentic?
In the name of Allah, the All-Merciful, the Mercy-Giving.
The narration that you refer to can be found in the Musnad of Imām Aḥmad bin Ḥanbal [ḥadīth no. 27539]. Its textual wording is as such:
“Abū Dardāʾ states that once when we were with the Messenger of Allāh (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) and we were discussing that which was to occur (in the future), the Messenger of Allah (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) exclaimed, ‘If you hear that a mountain has moved from its place, believe it; but if you hear that a man’s nature has changed, don’t believe it, for he remains true to his inborn disposition.’
حدثنا عبد الله حدثني أبي ثنا وهب بن جرير قال ثنا أبي قال سمعت يونس يحدث عن الزهري ان أبا الدرداء قال : بينما نحن عند رسول الله صلى الله عليه و سلم نتذاكر ما يكون إذ قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه و سلم إذا سمعتم بجبل زال عن مكانه فصدقوا وإذا سمعتم برجل تغير عن خلقه فلا تصدقوا به وانه يصير إلى ما جبل عليه
The chain of the ḥadīth is generally free from criticism due to the soundness of all the narrators of the chain. There is, however, an omission in the chain between Zuhrī and the Companion, Abū Dardāʾ (may Allah be pleased with him), which leaves the ḥadīth severed (munqatiʿ) and subject to narrative criticism according to the principles of the ḥadīth scholars.
Imam Ḥaythamī states: The narrators of the chain are all sound, except that Zuhrī never met Abū Dardāʾ(may Allah be pleased with him). [7/116]
Imam Sakhāwī therefore writes in al-Maqāsid: “The narration is munqatiʿ (severed).” He claims, however, that the meaning of the narration is supported by a number of witness-reports (shawāḥid): [1/73]
ولكن له شواهد منها. ما في الأمثال للعسكري من حديث أبي هريرة مرفوعاً: إن تغير الخلق كتغير الخلق، إنك لا تستطيع أن تغير خلقه، حتى تغير خلقه، ومنها ما في المعجم الكبير للطبراني من حديث عبد الله بن ربيعة، قال: كنا عند ابن مسعود فذكر القوم رجلاً فذكروا من خلقه فقال: ابن مسعود أرأيتم لو قطعتم رأسه أكنتم تستطيعون أن تعيدون، قالوا: لا: قال: فيده، قالوا: لا؛ قال: فرجله؛ قالوا: لا، قال: فإنكم لن تستطيعوا أن تغيروا خلقه حتى تغيروا خلقه، ومنها ما في أنس العاقل لأبي النرسي من حديث إسرائيل بن يونس بن أبي اسحق السبيعي، أنه سمع جده أبا اسحاق يقول لأبيه يونس المذكور، يا أبا إسرائيل ! إن بلغك أن رجلاً مات فصدق، وإن بلغك أن غنياً افتقر فصدق؛ وإن بلغك أن فقيراً أفاد مالاً فصدق، وإن بلغك أن أحمق أفاد عقلاً فلا تصدق، ومنها ما في الأفراد للدارقطني من حديث أبي هريرة مرفوعاً: إن الله عز وجل من على قوم فألهمهم فأدخلهم في رحمته، وابتلى قوماً وذكر كلمة فلم يستطيعوا أن يرحلوا عما ابتلاهم فعذبهم، وذلك عدله فيهم، إلى غير ذلك كحديث ابن مسعود: فرغ من أربع من الخلق والخلق كما سيأتي في: جف القلم، من الجيم، وكقوله: إن الله قسم بينكم أخلاقكم؛ كما قسم بينكم أرزاقكم. مما بينته في بعض الأجوبة
Shuʿayb Arnāʾūt, however, purports in his marginal notes on Imam Aḥmad’s Musnad that the narration is weak (ḍaʿīf) due to the above-mentioned severance in its chain. Albānī further declares that the narration is unfamiliar (munkar) due to its conflict in meaning and import with other sound narrations which support and encourage the improvement of one’s character. He states that the meaning of this narration contradicts the spirit of the possibility of changing one’s character and therefore should be discredited based upon the uniqueness of its meaning. He also claims that the narration reeks of the stench of the deviants (Jabariyyah) who believed that man has no free will and is predestined in all actions.
Albānī’s objections can be answered, however, if the witness-reports that support the meaning of the narration-in-question are acceptable for corroboration (shahādah), as Imam Sakhāwī seems to claim.
The first witness-report is related by Daylamī in his Musnad al-Firdaws [1/295-6], on the authority of Abū Hurayrah(may Allah be pleased with him) that the Messenger of Allāh (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said: “The one who changes natural disposition is (like) the one who changes physical constitution. You cannot change his natural disposition until you change his physical constitution.” In other words, just as the latter is impossible, so is the former.
قال أخبرنا أبي أخبرنا على بن محمد الميداني حدثنا أبو طالب الحري حدثنا يوسف بن عمر حدثنا أبو بكر بن أبي داود
قال وأخبرنا الحداد أخبرنا أبو نعيم حدثنا أبو عبد الله بن إسحق حدثنا ابن أبي عاصم قال حدثنا عمر بن عثمان حدثنا بقية عن إسماعيل بن عياش عن محمد بن عمرو عن أبي سلمة عن أبي هريرة قال قال رسول الله ﷺ: إن مغير الخُلُق مغير الخلق، إنك لا تستطيع أن تغير خُلقه حتى تغير خلقه
قال السيوطي في جمع الجوامع أو الجامع الكبير – (ج 1 / ص 7948)
1735) إن مغير الخَلْق كمغير الخُلُق إنك لا تستطيع أن تغير خَلْقَه حتى تغير خُلُقَه (العسكرى عن محمد بن عمرو وإسماعيل ضعيف فى غير الشاميين)
أخرجه أيضًا : ابن أبى عاصم فى السنة (1/85 ، رقم 192) . وابن عدى (1/298 ، ترجمة 127 إسماعيل بن عياش) ، وعزاه العجلونى (1/303) للعسكرى فى الأمثال عن أبى هريرة مرفوعًا . اهـ.
The narration is transmitted through Baqiyyah through ʿanʿanah and he is a known mudallis (misrepresenter), and Ismāʿīl ibn ʿAyyāsh is weak in his narration except when he transmits through Shāmī narrators which is not the case in this ḥadīth.
The second witness-report that Sakhāwī mentions has been narrated by Ṭabarānī [ḥadīth 8884] in his al-Muʿjam al-Kabīr and recorded through him by Haythamī in his Majmaʿ al-Zawāʾid [7/116]:
وعن عبد الله بن ربيعة قال: كنا عند عبد الله – يعني ابن مسعود – فذكر القوم رجلاً فذكروا من خلقه فقال عبد الله: أرأيتم لو قطعتم رأسه أكنتم تستطيعون أن تعيدوه؟ قالوا: لا! قال: فيده؟ قالوا: لا! قال: فرجله؟ قالوا: لا! قال: فإنكم لن تستطيعوا أن تغيروا خلقه حتى تغيروا خلقه فذكر الحديث. ص.403
رواه الطبراني ورجاله ثقات.
The narration states that ʿAbd Allāh ibn Rabīʿa said that once “we were with ‘Abd Allāh – Ibn Masʿūd – and the people began to mention a man and talk about his character. ‘Abd Allāh (Ibn Masʿūd) stated: What do you think, if you cut off his head would you be able to replace it?
They said: No!
He then said: What about his hand?
They exclaimed: No!
He then said: You will certainly not be able to change his moral characteristics until you are able to change his physical characteristics…”
Sakhāwī then states: “The narration has been transmitted by Tabarānī and the narrators of the chain are reliable.” The ḥadīth is, however, not raised up to the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) and is therefore mawqūf (the statement of a Companion). Despite this fact and the fact that the previous witness-report is weak in its chain, the meaning of the prophetic narration in question can be interpreted within the context of accepted Islamic principles and would therefore not stand in need of witness-reports, which in this case serve nevertheless in strengthening its meanings.
The context of Ibn Masʿūd’s (may Allah be pleased with him) statements, for example, suggest that he was simply rejecting the people’s complaints against a particular individual’s character and observing the futility of attempting to change what was inherent and not abhorrent in his character. Some people, for example, are harsh in disposition and some are softer. Some are more generous and some less so. Both types of personalities fall into the category of permissible and acceptable character and though not ideal, a man of lesser virtue cannot be expected to change his age-old habits.
It is for this reason that Shāh Walī Allāh al-Dihlawī mentions the narration-in-question (Abū Dardāʾ’s) in his Ḥujjat Allāh al-Bālighah under the chapter heading: “The variation in the natural dispositions of people leading to differences in their virtues, actions, and the degrees of their perfection.” [pg. 71, The Conclusive Argument from God]
Dihlawī provides a list in the same chapter of Qurʾānic verses and Prophetic narrations that he suggests corroborate in its meaning. For example, he states, “Say, everyone acts according to his own manner.” (that is, the manner according to which he was constituted. [Qurʾān 17:84]
He also quotes the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) as saying: “People are like mines, like mines of gold and silver.” [With different wording found in Bukhārī, Muslim, Ḥākim, Abū Dāwūd)
If the meaning of the Prophetic narration be taken to be similar to the statement of Ibn Masʿūd in its import, then the ḥadīth should not be considered to be munkar and contradictory to established Islamic principles. In other words, if the ḥadīth suggests not the impossibility of changing undesirable character but the acceptance of tolerable natural dispositions, then the ḥadīth, though munqatiʿ can be accepted and transmitted because it does not deal directly with legal rulings or issues of creed.
If the meaning of the narration is taken to mean that one is bound by fate and has no control over the improvement of his character, however, then the narration will indeed be problematic. The inclination towards this interpretation is supported by the context of the narration of Ibn Masʿūd which appears to be specific to a particular incident, whereas the prophetic statement seems to be more universal and general.
Mullā ʿAlī al-Qārī explains away this objection in his Mirqāt al-Mafātīḥ [1/444] by stating that the background of the story revolved around the Companions’ discussion of events to come and whether or not they had been conclusively decided by fate already or were not yet predetermined. The Prophet (upon him blessings and peace)’s statement was thus to clarify that just as nothing has the power to change future events and oppose what Allāh has determined to be fate, no one can change what Allāh has predetermined to be part of your natural and inborn temperament except He.
He interpreted the statement of the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam): “for he remains true to his inborn disposition” to be specific to one’s inherent and inborn disposition. He explains that it is not possible to completely eradicate certain features of one’s character, such as anger; rather, one is commanded to suppress it, which is why Allāh mentions in the Qurʿān: “and the suppressors of anger” and not “the eradicators of anger” since it is not possible to totally rid oneself of this natural inborn trait. It is desired, however, to control and suppress it. Therefore, to expect that one will be able to completely change the character of an individual is foolish and against the normal system of Allāh.
Munāwī supports this understanding in his Fayḍ al-Qadīr [2/663] and further adds: “In whomsoever an evil disposition becomes exclusive, he will become so disposed by nature towards despicable character that there will be no hope in its change, just as in whomsoever a good disposition becomes exclusive, he will become so disposed by nature towards praiseworthy character that there will be no hope in its change.”
من تمحضت فيه مادة الخبث فقد طبع على الخلق المذموم الذي لا مطمع في تبدله ومن تمحضت فيه مادة الطيب فقد طبع على الخلق الحسن المحمود الذي لا مطمع في تبدله
Based upon these sound interpretations, the apparent contradiction between the narrations is sufficiently answered and the claim of unfamiliarity (nakārah) can be rejected. It is therefore permissible to relate this narration as long as it is understood under the proper context and intended meanings. In other words, if the intent of transmitting the hadith is to justify laziness in improving one’s character, then quoting the hadith in that context is inappropriate. If, however, the meaning is understood to be that just as nothing has the power to change future events and oppose what Allāh has determined to be fate no one can change what Allāh has predetermined to be part of your natural and inborn temperament except He, then narration of the hadith would be permissible.
And Allāh knows best.
Bilal Ali Ansari
Chicago, IL USA